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Book Review : Great Novel Written on the Great War : A Great Novel That Examines the Great War

June 15, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy (Summit Books; $19.95; 700 pp.)

This book deserves to have an entire book written about it, and, with luck, within the next 20 years that will happen. For now, in this paltry thousand words, let it be said that "Gone to Soldiers" is a landmark piece of literary prose, a totally infuriating narrative, an amazing feat of research, a wildly audacious gesture.

"Gone to Soldiers" is a book by a woman; it is also a "great" novel of World War II. Before now, that would have been a contradiction in terms.

Right at the Front

It is as if Marge Piercy, dressed in full battle gear, just pushed herself into the convoy with all the rest of the guys, waved her BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) at them, threatened them with grenades, made them move over, and took her fair place, right up at the front.

"Gone to Soliders"--in depth of feeling, in quality of prose, and in the emotional clouds that it swirls around the reader as he or she gets up, every hundred pages to stretch or walk around the room, is somewhere between (but directly related to) Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" and Andres Schwartbart's "The Last of the Just." One remembers Mailer's saying that he prayed, as a kid-soldier, to be sent to the Pacific War rather than the European, because Europe had been written to death, and the Pacific War was "new."

More than 40 years later, in Piercy's hands, that war is new again, in its awfulness, its quirkiness, the idiosyncratic peculiarities of each island on the way north to Fortress Japan. And those who have read of the harrowing history of the modern persecution of the Jews in "The Last of the Just" will see some of that unbearable material again, but mitigated here, leavened by moments of Jewish triumph, defiance, joy.

An Altered Scheme

In a somewhat grumpy afterward, Piercy writes that she intended "Gone to Soldiers" to be "a third longer than it is and to include the Soviet Union, but the inability to get a grant to cover that research made me alter my scheme." In this truncated, 700-page (!) version, the author--through 10 different points of view--must content herself with dealing with seven years of congested history of most of the "civilized" world. It really is enough, and more than enough. Again, this could be the most thorough and most captivating, most engrossing novel ever written about World War II.

Seven Jews. Three Gentiles. The Jews, some of them, related, having lived long ago in the same Eastern European village. Aunts and uncles scattered now, to Paris, Shanghai, Detroit. The Gentiles, lower- and upper-middle class, well-educated, but battered by America's Great Depression. All of them present such an interesting set of choices!

In Paris, a conventional Jewish family dissolves because of the war: The father departs to fight in the Zionist Resistance in the South of France. A young twin is smuggled to Detroit to her working-class aunt and uncle; the mother and other twin are snared by the Nazis and deported to the East.

The older sister, an intellectual pain-in-the-neck, by a series of quarrels and painful circumstances is cut loose and goes as well to the South of France where she too becomes a heroine of the Resistance. . . .

In New York, a womanizing professor juggles his girlfriend and an ex-wife in an immensely satisfying game, but as the years of the war pass and his wife, a writer, begins to be happy and famous, he notices the center of power moving away from him.

Further north in New England, a spinster daughter waits hand-and-foot on her professor father, convinced that life has passed her by, except that the war gives her a chance to be a pilot in the Women's Auxiliary Service Patrol, and, eventually, a ticket to true freedom and autonomy.

Plenty of Action

Are you wondering what part there is for Clint Eastwood in this war drama? He could play the handsome Southern racist, cut down in cold blood by an irate Jewish enlisted man on some Pacific beachhead, but I don't think he'd like it. What "Gone to Soldiers" lacks are those standard, straight-forward, I-threw-my-grenade, he-went-at-me-with-his-bazooka kind of scene. There is plenty of action (some reviewers have already objected to the war scenes as being far too graphic), but the battles are surpassingly real.

There are some mistakes and anachronisms here: All the Mandarin language lessons in the world wouldn't let Daniel Balaban speak Chinese in Shanghai streets, where the Wu dialect is spoken. People didn't say "Sorry about that" until Maxwell Smart began saying it in the '60s. Likewise, people probably didn't get "hung up on" things, or listen to "white noise."

But these are the world's tiniest bugs in the world's largest salad. This is an amazing book!

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